Alphavirus genome replication is a multistep asymmetric process. Several lines of evidence suggest that the template preference of the RNA replicase is regulated by proteolytic cleavage of the viral nonstructural polyprotein. Cis-acting RNA elements in the viral genome also play crucial roles in regulating genome replication and subgenomic RNA transcription. In this report, a series of RNA templates were analyzed in vitro and in vivo to define functional elements in the 5' end of the genome. The 5' UTR was shown to contain distinct core promoter elements for both minus- and plus-strand synthesis. In addition, two conserved stem-loop structures within the nsP1 coding sequence enhanced RNA replication but were not required. Studies with chimeric templates and trans-competition experiments suggest that the 5' determinant for minus-strand initiation can differ among alphaviruses and binds to one or more limiting replicase components. The results provide compelling evidence that the 5' and 3' ends of alphavirus genome RNAs must interact to initiate replication and we propose one model for how this interaction might occur. In addition to providing new insight into the initiation of alphavirus genome replication, these results have implications for the development of improved alphavirus vector systems with reduced recombination potential.